BA strikes: The politics and the possible outcomes

BA’s withdrawal of its offer to cabin crew has made a strike probable where a deal seemed possible.

There will be no ballot this week ahead of the planned strike from Saturday, when the consultative vote the union proposed could well have weakened its negotiating position.

Even if cabin crew rejected the revised offer, the result was likely to show a growing minority against a strike. Willie Walsh has precluded that.

It is unlikely he acted in a fit of pique despite the frayed tempers on both sides. The withdrawal looks calculated.

BA’s argument that the offer was conditional on there being no announcement of the strike days is flimflam. Unite had little choice but to announce strike dates because Monday was the legal deadline for it to do so.

Had the union delayed, the law required it hold a fresh postal ballot ahead of any action. That was a deadline beyond BA’s power to extend.

So the union tried to keep its options open, calling a vote that might end the dispute while naming the days – which at least had the merit of identifying the periods of possible disruption and allaying fears of a 10-day stoppage.

Indeed, a three-day strike represents something of an olive branch in the circumstances, for there is a rationale to an extended stoppage other than a desire to cause maximum disruption.

The union fears BA will sack strikers – which would break the law, but BA may be prepared to pay the ensuing compensation to break the union.

So there is safety in involving a greater number: a one-day strike would involve one in ten members, but 10 days include everyone.

It’s hard to escape the conclusion that BA aims to defeat the unionised cabin crew even at the expense of a strike.

“It’s increasingly likely the airline will sit back and say ‘bring it on’”

What are the possible outcomes? We can rule out BA capitulating in advance of a strike.

Something will have to give elsewhere. It’s possible the union could gauge its members’ opinions, find the mood for a strike evaporating and sue for peace.

Or BA could seek and win a fresh injunction, preventing the initial strike going ahead.

But it’s increasingly likely the airline will sit back and say ‘bring it on’, believing it can break the will of cabin crew by defying a three-day strike. It would be wise to prepare on that assumption.

The government will be lobbying hard for a settlement, desperate to avoid headline-grabbing strikes in the run-up to a general election.

Rest assured, 12,000 BA cabin crew can be guaranteed more headlines than the 270,000 civil servants who were on strike last week. But that won’t translate as support for a strike.

Instead, Gordon Brown will be telling Woodley, “A strike could cost Labour the election and leave your members to face Cameron. Get back round the table”.

Expect Woodley to do all he can to avert that possibility. Unfortunately, Walsh may not be interested.

The pressure on the BA boss will come from elsewhere – particularly if he calculates the airline will soon be dealing with a different set of politicians.

BA’s major corporate customers will be furious at the travel disruption in the short term, but City analysts and investors will applaud a triumph by Walsh.

It is Walsh who has chosen the timing and terrain for the battle.

He has isolated the cabin crew within BA (signing deals with the big battalions of pilots, engineers and baggage handlers) shepherded a strike away from Christmas and now Easter, and used the intervening months to prepare his strike-breaking forces.

Resolve on the union side can only have been weakened by the delay. Walsh has cultivated an image of intransigence yet managed to win the PR battle hands down.

However, things can change once a struggle is underway. The balance of forces is barely apparent during a phony war and resolve is only tested once a battle begins.

Consider what happened the last time BA cabin crew went on strike in July 1997. The airline sought to change the structure of cabin crew payments. Crew balloted for a series of 72-hour strikes. BA trained “volunteers” to maintain services and threatened sanctions against striking crew.

In the event, about 300 crew declared themselves on strike on the first day of action, but more than 2,000 went sick – forcing BA to cancel at least 70% of flights from Heathrow and accept a union offer to get back to the table.

“The 1997 strike cost BA £125 million. Services were disrupted for a fortnight”

The three-day strike cost BA £125 million. Services were disrupted for a fortnight and Unite reported a 50% increase in cabin crew members.

The ensuing bitterness saw 4,000 cabin crew leave by the end of the year, but BA boss-at-the-time Bob Ayling never recovered and resigned two years later.

Walsh will be well aware of the history and feel he can avoid a repeat. But cabin crew have greater industrial strength than it might appear.

Airline seats are perishable. Flights cannot take off without the legally-required complement of trained and security-cleared crew.

And once crew disembark from a long-haul flight they can’t just turn around and take another.

Walsh’s alternative crews may struggle to maintain the level of service BA promises. The union doubts there are 1,000 available or that they are sufficiently trained and certificated.

We shall see, but 1,000 certainly is not enough to maintain services from Heathrow. At the same time, BA plans to lease 23 aircraft and crews could fall foul of the courts if the union seeks an injunction of its own, since the use of ‘agency staff’ to replace striking workers is proscribed.

For its part, the union is concerned to the point of paralysis about public opinion – which in large part translates as media opinion.

The headlines will undoubtedly be hostile to the strikers, sapping what may be fragile confidence.

However, I would not bank on this reflecting a universal public mood once a strike is underway and turning increasingly bitter – for reasons relating to the wider economic crisis.

For one thing, strikes are likely to become a much more common feature than most of us remember as the bill for the financial crisis and recession falls due.

For another, those popularly perceived as to blame for the crisis – bankers and financiers – are among those BA will be hoping to serve with its strike-breaking crew.

Should BA respond by sacking strikers, it risks losing the PR battle. Such a course could also alter the politics of the dispute – an important consideration in the run-up to an election – by bringing back memories of the Thatcher years, a period from which David Cameron is keen to disassociate the Tories.

And it would leave Unite with no choice but to fight to save its members’ jobs – which, in turn, would call into question the attitude of Unite members elsewhere in BA.

None of this helps the trade. But surely there is an opportunity here. While the BA self-booker must take their chances and hope the queuing is orderly, the agency customer should expect help and experience to hand. Use the uncertainty. Show your worth.

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